Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wild and Wonderful Jharkhand, Part 1

Jharkhand might be the state receiving the least foreign tourists per year of anywhere in mainland India, and it was the first place that I decided that I definitely had to go in this country as I was planning my Watson travels from the comfort and safety of Whitesburg, KY back in Spring of 2010. My interest was sparked by the fact that it was known as the most mineral rich state in the country (especially in coal), and also the most densely populated with tribal Adivasi peoples. It had once also been the most densely forested state, though even the state forestry website admits that this is rapidly changing due to destructive industrial development. It also carries a somewhat notorious reputation as the state harboring the greatest number of Naxalites, the guerrilla anti-government paramilitary force that gunned down 60 cops in a bus last November.

Once again through my British author friend Felix, I found myself with very good contacts in the heart of this "rogue" state. My first introduction was a bit surprising. I arrived in the capital city of Ranchi a couple of days before a community rights conference, and though it was rife with the trash, filth, and open sewers that I'd come to expect from Indian cities, it also had massive brand new malls, shopping complexes, and cinemas that rivaled those anywhere else in the country. The conference was a weird mix of sitting around listening to impassioned speakers hollering in Hindi about things I couldn't understand (the limited translations I got seemed to all be pretty similar, the need for communities to come together and organize against government and corporate oppression) and after-hours partying with very intense Adivasi folks who spoke almost no English but were very happy to teach me their dances and have me play drums with them.

By the end of the three day retreat, I had made many contacts and been invited by the primary community rights NGO (BIRSA MMC) in the area to stay with them as long as I wanted and accompany then on field visits to mining-affected communities. The first visit would start the next day. I soon realized that chaos would be a constant theme during my stay here, and with very little explanation of what lie ahead I found myself tightly packed into a jeep with 10 other Adivasis. We rumbled down the road out of Ranchi toward some place that had some surface coal mining, but I had no idea of the extent of what I would see.

We passed dozens of men pushing bicycles that were unbelievably loaded down with bags of what appeared to be coal chunks, and my main guide Punit explained that they haul this coke about 22 miles every day to make a meager living. After spending a night in a village where another NGO is working on community health and water sanitation (email cass.hazaribagh@gmail.com if you'd like to help support the purchase of water testing kits), we rumbled on down toward the village of Agariyatola. Before reaching, we stopped at the active surface mining area. It was visually pretty similar to what I saw in northern Orissa with a huge pit that extended farther than I could see with rock trucks and excavators that would be equally at home in Appalachia, though something felt different here. A few hundred meters down the road, we encountered a village that was and is still the most brutally screwed up place I've seen in my 6 months in this country. Agariyatola and a few neighboring villages have intensely resisted government efforts to relocate them from their ancestral villages, but their fierce independence has come at a very high price.

To give a little background, many of these Adivasi communities have existed in roughly the same location for 3 to 4,000 years. They are unique to other Indian cultures in that until recently they were so remote that they were never affected very much by invading Persian or Aryan groups, and to a lesser extent by the British colonialists. It's only been in the past 20-40 years that the Indian government has realized that rich deposits of coal and other minerals lie beneath the ground in many of these traditional farming and forestry communities, and with brutal and unreported tactics they have repeatedly forced these groups to relocate, often with nearly no compensation into substandard, cramped, lifeless housing that pales in comparison to their indigenous earthen buildings. Most Indians have no idea that this is where a majority of their electricity comes from, not to mention the rest of the world which scarcely knows that Jharkhand even exists.

Agariyatola could best be described by watching this video that I wrote and recorded the narration for. There are so many things I could say about this place and this situation, but the thing that really stuck out was the toughness and even positivity of the people who were living in these conditions. Despite not knowing if they would have enough drinking water and losing much of their agricultural land, they didn't seem to be feeling sorry for themselves or unable to smile and joke. (you really need to stop and watch the video before going on!)

From here we traveled to a much more positive place, somewhere that the local community has so far been able to save from surface mining. A nearby district in Hazaribagh (can't remember the name!) has recently been discovered to have a rich, thick seam of coal below it's surface, and over 30 companies have signed MOUs with the government to acquire leases to extract the coal. There also happens to be lots and lots of people and a rich diversity of agricultural crops sitting on the surface. We stayed with Deepak, one of the strongest local leaders and also a Dalit, the lowest caste in Indian society. Through his outspoken and charismatic leadership, the farmers and villagers have so far resisted efforts at persuasion and coercion to accept monetary compensation and resettlement packages to abandon their ancestral land. In addition to the opposition based on traditional livelihood, there also exists a series of ancient artworks on some rock cliffs within the area that is proposed to be mined. A local philanthropist named Bulu Imam has been instrumental in documenting this artwork and attempting to have it placed on the national register of historic places. I was lucky enough to be taken to this rock art which is quite remote and past a lovely but "primitive" village where all of the homes were built from mud right onto large rock outcroppings; the exact age of the art is yet to determined but is estimated to be around 1,500 to 2,000 years old.

This part of the trip was capped off by a visit to maybe the most "sustainable" coal mine in the world. A bunch of local villagers had decided to just start digging down into the earth and into the coal seam by hand, haul the coal away from the site with oxen, and after coking haul the coke to the nearest urban areas via bicycle. They didn't mind a bit for us to come right down into the mine and hang out while they hacked coal loose with picks (standard workplace footwear here was flip-flops) and carried it out in baskets on their heads. Back at Deepak's we sampled some mahua which is a very nice and supposedly vitamin rich homemade liquor that uses fallen tree flowers as the main feedstock while we listened to him play some of his self-made protest songs that he would be recording soon.

And then Holi happened. Shortly after coming back to Ranchi I realized that the infamous Indian festival of colors would be happening and I was determined to experience it to at least some degree. The Adivasi folks at BIRSA who'd been hosting me were all Christian and as such didn't observe Hindu holidays, so I had to go out of my way a little. I was eventually able to get random powdered colors, water, and various other things thrown and smeared all over me (and vice-versa), and I even managed to pick up a bunch of "colors" and bring them back to the BIRSA office to get the young interns into the fray on the roof of the building. All in all I'd say it was a success.

Almost by chance I learned of a bus load of Adivasi college kids that would be going to a rally to celebrate the protection of some tribal land from getting turned into a huge bomb testing range, and before I knew it I was greeting a bus full of enthusiastic folks on the way to Netarhat. The thing that really impressed me about them and which I didn't know was even possible beforehand was the fact that they pretty much consistently had a dance party going on the bus the entire time, as evidenced by this video. We stopped on the way to have a big lunch with somebody's family and made it to the site just before sundown for another big meal of rice, dahl, and pickle on these interesting plates made out of leaves stitched together. I barely got any sleep due to sleeping out on some blankets on the bare ground fairly close to where a generator was blaring all night, then the whole bus went down to the "sunrise point" to, surprise, watch the sunrise. We eventually made it back up to where the main events were going on, and I spent most of the day sitting on blankets surrounded by my newfound friends or walking around taking pictures of the community plays that folks were putting on. The dance parties continued full-force on the ride home, and I was pretty sad to say goodbye to all of the awesome folks I'd just met.

This is a little less than halfway through the overall Jharkhand saga, so I'll leave a little space between here and the next adventure. Til next time..